Diwali: Past And Present

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The email from HR arrived suddenly, unexpected in its subject line.

“Diwali,” it said. The body was sparse, requesting any of us who had the time to stop by HR for a quick chat.

New to the company (relatively) and therefore without deadlines hounding me, I took the stairs to the third floor and found Karen. She was the sort of person who radiated joy. Her missive was simple.

“How do we observe Diwali at work?”

I didn’t have to think much. Diyas, rangolis, vibrant colors and FOOD! I exclaimed. I asked her what her budget was and the smile faltered. Just enthused that a multinational corporation would finally make the effort to recognize a festival celebrated by billions, I recalibrated.

“Tea lights, banners from Amazon, potluck lunch…” I offered and the smile wafted back in place.

She offered to set up a meeting for later to hone details and I waved bye as I enthusiastically bounded back to my desk. I was half tempted to look for banners and figure out a menu when real work beckoned and I put thoughts of Diwali on the back burner.

Over the next few days, conversations happened over lunch, on walks around the building to the deafening sound of crickets and an invasion of lanternflies on the sidewalk. The euphoria over our workplace celebrating a festival that meant something to us evaporated.

Diwali is an emotion. It is the countdown from weeks ahead of the festival. The slow accumulation of precious firecrackers, the endless jaunts to the market to look for the perfect Diwali dress. The haggling, the bags bursting with new clothes, the pit stop at the local eatery to rest weary legs, the crowds, the vibrancy and the smell of festival in the air.

For me, it always has been Deepavali. It has been symbolized by the thick smell of oil lamps, the hazy smoke that hangs in the air all day keeping mosquitoes at bay. It is the dabbas of bakshanam, prepared over days by mothers and grandmothers slaving over hot oil. It is in the boxes of sweets exchanged with neighbors. It is in the smell of jasmine and sambraani, the hair wet from oil and shikakai in the pre-dawn hours. Most of all, it is in the feeling of inclusion, knowing that when you step out of your home, everyone around you shares that feeling of joy, of celebrating victory over evil, of light over darkness.

In the years since I immigrated to America, Diwali has been marked by the traditional oil bath at home. The vibrant salwar kameez and podavais of the past have been replaced by practical workwear. The smells and the sights of the Deepavali I grew up with linger only in nostalgia. The celebration has been shunted to the weekends, in mass gatherings, under glitzy disco lights, naan and paneer, Bollywood music and cries of Happy Diwali.

The symbolism is great. The tea lights and the printed rangolis are a pale imitation of the Deepavali of my childhood. The potluck a stand-in for the real deal, for each part of India, celebrates the festival for a different reason and in a different way.

At work, we probably will group into cliques, eat the food we made and walk back to our desks, happy with the token acknowledgment.

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